The ‘Rising Storm of 1911 to 1913’ in Russia

Tiflis Eisenbahnstreik
Streikende Arbeiter in Tiflis haben eine Lokomotive umgekippt, 1905 Foto: Wikipedia Public Domain

In the first chapter of her manuscript ‘The Russian Revolution’, Luxemburg describes the revolution(s) of the year 1917 as the ‘product of international developments plus the agrarian question’, and refers to the ‘rising storm of 1911 to 1913’ (see Luxemburg 2004 [1918] p 282-283) in Russia. What does she mean by that?

The period after the Revolution of 1905 to 1907 was characterised by the suppression of all opposition and simultaneously growing discontent, on all sides of the political spectrum in Russia, with the existing conditions: reactionaries were dissatisfied with what they considered to be excessive reforms, landowners expected support from the government, businessmen complained about the tax system and competition from state-owned businesses, the intelligentsia condemned the repression of academic institutions, peasants demanded the liquidation of landed estates (between 1910 and 1913, there were more than 13,000 peasant uprisings), and workers increasingly used the strike as a means of asserting their interests. Between 1907 and 1909, ‘more than 26,000 people’ were ‘convicted in political trials, of which 5,086 were condemned to death. In 1909, there were around 170,000 prisoners behind bars. Legal trade union organisations were subject to constant repression; the number of their members declined from 246,000 to 250,000 in the year 1907 to 13,000 (at the end of 1909).’ (cf Laveryčev 1977, p 244) Hagen thinks at the same time, the emergence of a democratic public sphere can be detected. That is certainly not entirely unjustified. That was also certainly due to the fact that the state apparatus, primarily the censorship, was not at all able to control everything, so that the free spaces that emerged should be understood rather as a consequence of this reality.

Conflicts both within the Russian ruling classes as well as between capital and labour intensified when the strike at the goldfields of the Lena territory (April 1912) was bloodily quashed. 170 workers were killed and 196 wounded.

Yet the demands themselves were straightforward and justified. Among them were wage increases, improvement of living conditions (housing conditions above all), the introduction of an eight-hour day, being addressed by the pronoun ‘Vy’ instead of ‘ty’, the dismissal of a number of managers who had distinguished themselves with bullying behaviour and finally, guarantees on the freedom of activity for representatives elected by the workers (like the strike committee). (For more details, see: Lena gold workers 1912)

The strike finally ended after eight months with 18,000 workers and their families leaving the gold mines. (cf Dimitriev and Ėmontova 1970, p 445) At the same time, according to Kerensky (who was briefly a minister in 1917 after the February Revolution and then minister president of the provisional government), the power of company had been curbed and the working and living conditions of the workers improved. (cf Kerenksy, 1989, p 105) The legitimacy of the demands was largely confirmed by the press, from various political perspectives. The outrage among the bourgeois public about the events in Lena was great. In the press, the actions of the Lena Gold Partnership and the state were both considered completely unacceptable. Hagen quotes press comments such as this, ‘The appalling ease with which weapons are used shows that the administration approaches the fact of economic conflict with completely inappropriate, antiquated means.’ (Hagen 2002, p 249) The background was that the company de facto dominated all aspects of social and economic life in the region. The entire infrastructure, trade, suppliers and the administration were dependent upon it. For that reason, Kerensky referred to the Lena goldfields as a ‘capitalist utopia’. (cf Melancon 1994, p 773)

In the duma, the events were the object of sharp attacks on the government. Administrative conditions were so desolate that Duma parliamentarians had knowledge of the events before the government. (cf Hagen 2002, p 256) This was despite the fact that the managing directors had a direct line to the various ministries. The attempt by the minister of the interior to attribute culpability for the events to the workers was met with outrage by a large number of Duma representatives and the press. In an article in the Bolshevik newspaper ‘Pravda’ from 25April 1912, utter or widespread confusion, disunity and fluctuation was stated to be the case. Even the police supposedly reacted in completely different ways with regard to the protests against the massacre of the Lena goldfields. The article goes on to state that although the proletariat hardly disposed of its own organisations and its newspapers were not able to speak openly, a large measure of unity in action and unanimity in assessing the situation could be observed. (cf Dimitriev und Ėmontova 1970, p 446)

Ultimately, Senator Manuchin was assigned by the Tsar himself to investigate the events and granted special administrative powers. At the same time, the Duma engaged its own investigative commission under Kerensky’s leadership. In its report, conditions in the region are ‘described as inhumane, the practices of the partnership as against the law, the strike by the workers as purely economic and peaceful, and the shooting strongly condemned as unprovoked.’ (Hagen 2002, p 266) The statement published by the government was much softened, and adopted the assertion of the company and the responsible officer that forces with ‘politically destructive intentions’ were behind the strikers. (Hagen 2002, 273)

In contrast to the outrage that the massacre provoked among the public and in the Duma, employers conducted themselves in a coolly calculating way, and in terms of consequences no less brutally than their counterparts of the Lena goldfields: the employers’ association of St Petersburg determined with regard to the demands of protesting workers that above all else, demands for co-determination were to be consistently rejected. Additionally, after being fired, striking workers were not to be hired by other firms. (cf Haimson 2005, p 211) With regard to the core question of accepting workers as beings with their own rights and dignity, there was a huge gap between bourgeois and media declarations and reality. Both the interrelationship between state power and the company manifest in the events, as well as the reaction of businessmen, demonstrated that the economic struggle of workers would have to take on an increasingly political character – in other words, enterprise and the state regarded it as political, regardless of the workers’ intentions. Lenin sees in the massacre (merely) the ‘occasion for the revolutionary temper of the masses developing into a revolutionary upswing of the masses.’ (Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 18, p 103); the underlying cause was much deeper. Referring to the Revolution of 1905 he continues: ‘Events show that the tradition of the revolutionary mass strike lives on among the workers and that the workers at once took up and revived this tradition.’ (ibid. p 105)

So it is no wonder that the massacre would become one of the triggers not only of short flare-ups of unrest, but also for unrest that would extend into 1914. Haimson establishes concerning the period immediately after the massacre that it was primarily younger and better educated workers who tended towards the revolutionary mood. In addition to being concerned with material demands, they wanted to have their human dignity acknowledged. (cf Haimson 2005, p 190 etc) He invokes Siemens&Halske in St Petersburg as an example – the business paid above-average wages, but its workforce was among the first to protest against the Lena events.

The number of strikes in the country increased from 222 in the year 1910 to 466 (1912) and 1,671 (1913, January to September); the number of strike participants in the same period increased from 46,623 to 725,491 and then reached 678,564. Other sources speak of over a million strike participants. In the process, the importance of political demands constantly increased. In 1913, 910 strikes raised (primarily) economic demands, 761 political demands. In addition, discontent grew among soldiers.

This tendency also continued in 1914. The wave of strikes extended from the industrial centres of St Petersburg and Moscow to Baku (Azerbaijan) and Tiflis (Georgia). Among the demands of the oil workers of Baku were: a wage increase, improvements to nutrition and housing, the construction of workers’ housing estates, the introduction of the eight-hour day, the abolition of (unpaid) overtime, the official recognition of 1 May as a holiday, and the introduction of universal school education and other demands, which were also at the heart of the Lena protests. (cf Dimitriev und Ėmontova 1970, p 453 etc)

Apparently the situation, according to a speech in the Russian parliament (Duma) was reminiscent of the eve of the Revolution of 1905. The outbreak of the First World War merely postponed the outbreak of this new revolution. And it was also clear that this new revolution would be shaped by two components: the contradiction between the various fractions of the ruling (and increasingly fractured) bloc of capital, the state and the nobility on the one hand, and the already acutely unfolding contradiction between capital and (the) labour (movement) on the other. The processes of 1917 and the intricacy of the conflicts leading up to October 1917 have already been established here. In this sense, the situation was ripe for a revolution; its course and results were no longer a question of theory, but of praxis. The ‘rising storm of the years 1911-1913’ thus became the connecting thread between the revolutions of 1905-1907 and the revolutions of 1917. They, and the phenomenal development of European capitalism, made the continuation of the 1905 revolution possible. (cf Luxemburg 2004 [1918] p 283)

Sources and further reading

  • Dimitriev, S.S., und R.G. Ėmontova, (published). 1970. Chestomatija po istorii SSSR 1861-1917 Moskva Prosveščenie.
  • Hagen, Manfred. 2002. ‘Das Lena-Blutbad 1912 und die russische Öffentlichkeit‘. In Die russische Freiheit. Wege in ein paradoxes Thema, published by Manfred Hagen, 242-277. Stuttgart: Steiner.
  • Haimson, Leopold H. 2005. Russia’s revolutionary experience, 1905 – 1917 : two essays, Studies of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
  • Kerenski, Alexander. 1989. Die Kerenski-Memoiren. Rußland und der Wendepunkt der Geschichte. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.
  • Laveryčev, Vladimir Jakovlevič. 1977. ‘Die revolutionäre Bewegung in Rußland zwischen den beiden bürgerlich-demokratischen Revolutionen‘. In Klassenkampf und revolutionäre Bewegung in der Geschichte Russlands. Von den Anfängen bis zur Oktoberrevolution, hrsg. von V.I. Bulganov, P. Hoffmann, V.T. Pašutov und G. Voigt. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
  • Lena-Goldarbeiter. 1912. ‘Требования бастующих рабочих Лензото, выработанные 3 марта и принятые общим собранием. 3 марта 1912 г. (The Demands of the Workers of LENZOTO, developed on March 3rd and accepted at a general assembly on March 3rd 1912)’. accessed 16 January 2017. A photo series on the history of the region ( gives an idea of working conditions at the time.
  • Lenin, W.I. 1974 [1912]. ‘The Revolutionary Upsurge’. In Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 18. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  • Luxemburg, Rosa. 2006 [1918]. ‘The Russian Revolution’. In The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. New York: Monthly Review Press
  • Melancon, Michael. 1994. ‘The Ninth Circle: The Lena Goldfield Workers and the Massacre of 4 April 1912’. Slavic Review 53 (3):p 766-795. doi: 10.2307/2501519